Confronting The Messy Side of Diversity

One year ago this month, a bold and out-of-the-frame project was launched to change the face of leadership in the city of Toronto. The primary goal of DiverseCity: The Greater Toronto Leadership Project was not merely to bring more diverse faces — specifically non-whites — into the boardrooms of power, it was about bringing people in to “re-arrange the furniture,” to quote Ratna Omidvar, co-chair of DiverseCity.

After one year, some of the people are in the room, but the furniture hasn’t been moved around much.

Nearly half of the population of Toronto is non-white, yet the politicians at City Hall is not reflective of that reality. The composition of agencies, boards and commissions (ABC’s) is also disconnected from the city’s demographics.

DiverseCity has undertaken a number of initiatives to re-imagine leadership in one of the most cultually and racially diverse cities in the world. One of those programs is called onBoard. The goal is to get 1,000 qualified non-whites on the boards of public, and nonprofit agencies by 2011. In only one year, 1,000 applicants with a variety of ethno- cultural backgrounds and skills have been interviewed and more than 360 organizations have signed onto the program. More than 300 appointments have been made. The goal is to get 500 appointments by 2011. If the trend continues, onBoard will meet or surpass its goals.

Other DiverseCity programs have shown similiar success in just 12 months.

One program, however, that is not doing so well is the one that’s designed to change the perspective of the “people with influnce” about diversity and inclusion in leadership.

No surprise there. The fact is, the easy part of diversity is counting the numbers; who’s in  and who’s out. The messy part is confronting why the numbers are low. That requires confronting ugly stuff such as racism and discrimination and having uncomfortable conversations about who has power and why.

In a stratified society such as Toronto where increasingly we see power and privilege reserved for the few, asking the “influencers” to confront their demons is a bit like asking the fox to contemplate the power imbalance inside the hen house. The fox may not be too interested.

What’s required is a city-wide conversation about the messy part of diversity that involves both the insiders and the outsiders. DiverseCity could play an important role in convening such conversations.

It’s not about pointing fingers or blaming and shaming as some people would like to do — although sometimes naming a thing has merit. It’s really about confronting the reality that despite our tremendous diversity, the greatest challenge is inclusion; valuing and welcoming the contribution of everyone for the greater good.

Let the conversation begin!

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